Joint Statement Initiatives and Joint Declaration

The role of plurilaterals in the WTO’s future

As the WTO is less than two weeks from the start of its 12th Ministerial Conference, an important question for the WTO Membership is whether or not the WTO will incorporate results from plurilaterals started at and after the 11th Ministerial (the so-called Joint Statement Initiatives) into the WTO or will rather limit the role of plurilaterals and effectively further reduce the relevance of the WTO going forward.

As reviewed in prior posts, India and South Africa have challenged the role of plurilaterals where WTO requirements are not followed to make it part of the WTO acquis. See, e.g., February 20, 2021:  Will India and South Africa (and others) prevent future relevance of the WTO?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/20/will-india-and-south-africa-and-others-prevent-future-relevance-of-the-wto/. The paper from India and South Africa, THE LEGAL STATUS OF ‘JOINT STATEMENT INITIATIVES’ AND THEIR NEGOTIATED OUTCOMES, 19 February 2021, WT/GC/W/819 and one revision (WT/GC/W/819/Rev.1) was the subject of discussions at the March 1-2 and 4, 2021 General Council meeting and has been raised in subsequent General Council meetings as well. See GENERAL COUNCIL, MINUTES OF MEETING HELD IN VIRTUAL FORMAT ON 1-2 AND 4 MARCH 2021, WT/GC/M/190 (23 April 2021), pages 65-78; GENERAL COUNCIL, 7-8 October 2021 PROPOSED AGENDA, WT/GC/W/828 (5 October 2021), agenda item 11 (PAPER TITLED “THE LEGAL STATUS OF ‘JOINT STATEMENT INITIATIVES’ AND THEIR NEGOTIATED OUTCOMES” BY INDIA, SOUTH AFRICA AND NAMIBIA (WT/GC/W/819/REV.1)). Neither India nor South Africa are participating in any of the Joint Statement Initiatives (“JSIs”) at the present time.

Below are some excerpts from the March 2021 General Council meeting which lays out the views of a few of the WTO Members on the topic. The excerpts start with the views of India and South Africa as the sponsors of the paper and then follows with the reaction of a number of Members who support the JSI process. Many more Members expressed views. The controversy basically revolves around whether WTO Members will pursue initiatives among those with an interest with all Members being able to monitor, participate and join when desired or be limited by a system which has proven largely unable to address new issues in a timely manner.

India (pages 65-67 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.2. The representative of India recalled that India and South Africa had submitted the paper in document WT/GC/W/819 dated 19 February 2021 on the “The Legal Status of ‘Joint Statement Initiatives’ and their Negotiated Outcomes”. As a co-sponsor, India was not questioning the right of Members to meet and discuss any issue. However, when such discussions turned into negotiations
and their outcomes were to be brought into the WTO, the fundamental rules of the WTO should be followed. The WTO had been established as a forum concerning multilateral trade relations in matters dealt with under the agreements in the Annexes to the Marrakesh Agreement and for further negotiations among its Members concerning their multilateral trade relations and to provide a framework for the implementation of results of such negotiations.

“10.3. The Marrakesh Agreement defined ‘Plurilateral Agreements’ as the agreements and associated legal instruments that were included in Annex 4 to the Agreement. The Ministerial Conference, upon the request of the Members party to a trade agreement, decided exclusively by consensus to add that agreement to the said Annex 4. Procedures for amending rules were enshrined in Article X of the Marrakesh Agreement. On the other hand, the GATT and GATS contained specific provisions for modifications of Schedules containing specific commitments of Members.

“10.4. Amendments or additions to the rules were governed by multilateral consensus based decision-making or voting – right from the outset when a new proposal for an amendment was made. On the other hand, negotiations on modifications or improvements to Schedules could arise either as the outcomes of consensual multilateral negotiations pursuant to Article XXVIII of GATT or Article XXI of GATS or be reached through a bilateral request and offer process or as a result of a dispute. In fact, even changes to Schedules could not be made unilaterally as other Members had the right to protect the existing balance of rights and obligations.

“10.5. The GATS read in concert with the Marrakesh Agreement provided for different rules and procedures for amendment of rules and modification of schedules. While the GATS rules were governed by the GATS Part II, “General Obligations and Disciplines”, Part III of the GATS contained provisions concerning Members individual “Specific Commitments” pertaining to distinctly identified services sectors which were inscribed in Members’ Schedules. In case of conflict in interpretation, Article XVI.3 of the Marrakesh Agreement provided that in the event of a conflict between a provision of the Marrakesh Agreement and a provision of any of the Multilateral Trade Agreements, the provisions of the Marrakesh Agreement should prevail.

“10.6. Each of the JSIs was likely to pose different legal challenges to the existing WTO rules and mandates given the differences in the nature and scope of issues covered under each of those initiatives. However, any attempt to bring in the negotiated outcomes of the JSIs into the WTO by appending them to Members’ Schedules, even on MFN basis, following modification of Schedules
procedures, bypassing multilateral consensus would be contrary to the provisions of the Marrakesh Agreement.”10.7. Any attempt to introduce new rules, resulting from JSI negotiations, into the WTO without fulfilling the requirements of Articles IX and X of the Marrakesh Agreement would be detrimental to the functioning of the rules-based multilateral trading system. Among others, it would erode the integrity of the rules-based multilateral trading system, create a precedent for any group of Members to bring any issue into the WTO without the required mandate. bypass the collective oversight of Members for bringing in any new rules or amendments to existing rules in the WTO, usurp limited WTO resources available for multilateral negotiations, result in Members disregarding existing multilateral mandates arrived at through consensus in favour of matters without multilateral mandates, lead to the marginalization or exclusion of issues which were difficult but which remained critical for the multilateral trading system such as agriculture and development thereby undermining balance in agenda setting, negotiating processes and outcomes and fragment the multilateral trading system and undermine the multilateral character of the WTO.

“10.8. The document listed various options to move ahead. As per the provisions of the Marrakesh Agreement, for bringing in their negotiated outcomes in the WTO, the JSI Members could seek consensus among the whole WTO Membership, followed by acceptance by the required proportion of Members according to Article X of the Marrakesh Agreement. Alternatively, they could get the new agreements included in Annex 4 following Article X.9 of the Marrakesh Agreement. They also had option to pursue agreements outside the WTO Framework, as had been envisaged in the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) or as had been done in multiple bilateral or plurilateral FTAs or RTAs. The proponents of a “flexible multilateral trading system” could even seek amendment to Article X of the Marrakesh Agreement following procedures enshrined therein to provide for such an approach.

“10.9. Through the paper WT/GC/W/819, India and South Africa reiterated that basic fundamental principles and rules of the rules-based multilateral trading system as enshrined in the Marrakesh Agreement should be followed by all Members including the participants of various JSIs. Negating the decisions of past Ministerial Conferences by decisions taken by a group of Ministers on the sidelines of a Ministerial Conference or the side-lines of any other event would be detrimental to the existence of the rules-based multilateral trading system under the WTO.”

South Africa (pages 67-68 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.10. The representative of South Africa said that the WTO had been established as a forum concerning multilateral trade relations. South Africa’s interest in submitting the paper was to remind Members of the legal architecture that governed the functioning of the WTO which was critical to preserve its multilateral character. The pandemic was a sharp reminder of the importance of global cooperation in dealing with global challenges. The challenges facing humanity were not limited to
the pandemic but included rising inequality both within and between countries, poverty and food insecurity, among others. Those necessitated that Members avoided measures that undermined or fragmented the trading system.

“10.11. Any group of Members could discuss any issue informally. However, when discussions turned into negotiations, and their outcomes were sought to be formalized into the WTO framework, it could only be done in accordance with the rules of procedure for amendments as well as decision-making as set out in the Marrakesh Agreement. The plurilaterals were provided for in the Marrakesh Agreement and were included in Annex 4 to the Agreement – and there were specific rules to be followed to integrate those into the WTO framework. It was however important to note that the Ministerial Conference, upon the request of the Members party to a trade agreement, decided exclusively by consensus to add that agreement to the said Annex 4.

“10.12. The provisions in the Marrakesh Agreement had been carefully negotiated and were a result of the experience acquired in the GATT which had been characterized especially after the Tokyo Round by agreement on a number of plurilateral codes. There had been recognition that those plurilateral codes had created a fragmented system of rules. In respect of some Contracting Parties,
the GATT rules had been applicable, while in respect of the rest, both the GATT rules and the rules of plurilateral codes had been applicable. That created considerable complexity in determining what obligations had been applicable in respect of which Contracting Party.

“10.13. The Preamble to the Marrakesh Agreement clearly articulated Members’ vision for the WTO and it was to develop an integrated, more viable and durable multilateral trading system. Article II.1 stated that “The WTO shall provide the common institutional framework for the conduct of trade relations among its Members.” Article III.2 stated that “The WTO shall provide the forum for negotiations among its Members concerning their multilateral trade relations”. It provided for consensus-based decision-making as enshrined in Articles III.2, IX, X and also X.9 as well as procedures for the amendments of rules as articulated in Article X.

“10.14. The Marrakesh Agreement did not make provision for the so-called open plurilaterals and flexible multilateralism. Therefore, any suggestion that when offered on MFN basis, no consensus was required for bringing new rules into the WTO was legally inconsistent with the fundamental principles and procedures of the Marrakesh Agreement. Importantly, new rules could not be brought into the WTO through amendment of Members’ Schedules. It had also been suggested that the Telecommunications Reference Paper justified why the consensus principle could be bypassed. However, as part of the package of the Uruguay Round outcome, there had been a multilateral consensus and a formal mandate for the negotiations, including agreement on inscribing outcomes into Schedules without an amendment procedure.

“10.15. There were systemic and developmental implications inherent in plurilaterals especially if they attempted to subvert established rules and foundational principles of the Marrakesh Agreement. They risked eroding the integrity of the rules-based multilateral trading system, creating a precedent for any group of Members to bring any issue into the WTO without the required consensus, including disregard of existing multilateral mandates, marginalizing issues which were difficult but yet critical
for the multilateral trading system such as agriculture and development thereby undermining balance in agenda setting, negotiating processes and outcomes, fragmenting the system and undermining the multilateral character of the WTO which Members had sought to resolve by creating the WTO following the GATT experience.

“10.16. The legal framework of the WTO provided clear options for Members who were part of JSIs as outlined in the paper. South Africa was therefore calling on Members to respect the rules which continued to underpin the functioning of the WTO.

Australia (page 69 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.24. The representative of Australia noted Members’ commitment to improving the effectiveness of the WTO’s rulemaking function. Australia was a participant in all the current JSI negotiations under way and strongly supported that important work at the WTO. Plurilateral initiatives were neither novel nor revolutionary in the multilateral trading system. They had always been a part of the WTO architecture had constituted the predominant form of rulemaking in the multilateral trading system for decades. WTO-consistent plurilateral trade agreements with wide participation played an important role in complementing global liberalization efforts. The current JSIs had the potential to deliver vital outcomes that strengthened the WTO’s rulemaking function and its health more generally. More than 110 Members were participating in one or more of the current JSI negotiations – demonstrating the wide acknowledgement from across the Membership that that was a legitimate and useful form of rulemaking. They had and continued to be inclusive, open and transparent.

“10.25. Australia did not agree with the legal analysis in India and South Africa’s paper. For instance, the suggestion that Members could not improve their GATT or GATS Schedules without consensus agreement was not accurate. Members could always incorporate improvements to their Schedules whether unilaterally or as a group of Members. That was the legal architecture which participants had agreed to use in the services domestic regulation JSI. Australia had full confidence in the WTO consistency of that approach. In the case of the e-commerce JSI, its participants were still exploring the legal structure options they could best use to incorporate eventual outcomes into the WTO legal framework but were confident that those pathways could be found. Australia encouraged all Members to participate in or at least keep an open mind on those plurilateral discussions to pursue
outcomes that modernized and enhanced WTO rules for the whole Membership.”

Costa Rica (pages 69-70 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.26. The representative of Costa Rica was focused on ensuring that the WTO operated within the legal framework agreed by the Members. Costa Rica would reject any attempt to force Members to abide by new obligations without their consent. Costa Rica was a participant in the Joint Statement Initiatives on Electronic Commerce, Investment Facilitation for Development, MSMEs and Services Domestic Regulation. The reason for that was simple. Costa Rica was recognizing the need to adapt to the trade policy challenges of the 21st century. But that did not mean that any Member who chose to remain outside those discussions would be forced to adhere to any new obligations.

“10.27. Costa Rica focused its remarks that day on the negotiations on services domestic regulation as that was the initiative that it had the pleasure of coordinating. Those negotiations and the outcome they would produce were firmly within the rules of the WTO. 59 proponents of services domestic regulation had established the initiative at the end of 2017 after they had to accept with
great regret that no further progress had been possible in the Working Party on Domestic Regulation. Each and every proposal submitted had been rejected in its entirety by South Africa and other Members. Proponents of domestic regulation had no choice but to accept that position.

“10.28. Since that time, work on the subject had so far advanced in the Joint Statement Initiative on Services Domestic Regulation. To the extent that participants considered it to be a viable prospect for an outcome to be delivered that year, Costa Rica clarified that the outcome would consist of a set of disciplines on licensing, qualification and standards which would bind only participating
Members but would benefit services suppliers from all Members who traded with the participating Members which currently represented more than 70% of world services trade.

“10.29. The outcome that was envisaged would be incorporated into participating Members’ GATS schedules of specific commitments. In substance, it covered precisely those types of measures that were listed in the GATS as areas for additional commitments, namely, qualification standards and licensing matters That was important because the paper introduced by India and South Africa suggested that the disciplines developed by the initiative constituted some form of not further specified rules which did not fit under the architecture of services schedules. That was quite untrue. Rather, the disciplines constituted improvements of participating Members’ existing commitments.

“10.30. Participating Members would give legal effect to the outcome by inscribing the disciplines as additional commitments in the respective GATS schedules. That would not be done by seeking to add a new agreement to the WTO architecture but by applying well established multilateral WTO procedures to improve Members’ schedules of specific commitments. Concerns about the work of the JSI had been raised already at the end of 2019. At that time, India had argued that some of the disciplines could be of a GATS minus nature and the GATS Article VI.4 mandate could be affected by the work of the initiative. As the Coordinator of the initiative, Costa Rica had had the pleasure of discussing those concerns with India in more detail and to report back to the group. While participants in the initiative did not agree that the disciplines in question could be understood to undercut existing GATS obligations, they agreed wholeheartedly with India that the disciplines should not be understood to weaken any provision contained in the GATS.

“10.31. Indeed, participants had recently incorporated in the negotiating text language expressing clearly that the disciplines should not be constructed to diminish any obligations under the GATS. The GATS Article VI.4 mandate to develop any necessary domestic regulation disciplines was not, would not and could not be affected by the fact that Members participating in the JSI would undertake additional commitments on domestic regulation. Costa Rica was therefore disappointed to see that India currently appeared to question the right of any WTO Member to improve its services commitments. The JSI on Services Domestic Regulation remained open and transparent and all Members were welcome to join the meetings and to constructively engage ensuring that the outcome benefited service suppliers across the world and included as many Members as possible.”

Chinese Taipei (page 70 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.32. The representative of Chinese Taipei noted that the plurilateral approach had contributed to global trade in the past. The ITA was an example. Certain limited use of the plurilateral approach could support and supplement the multilateral trading system by facilitating international trade. The discussions under JSIs had given the WTO new momentum which was necessary and healthy for the multilateral system. It was an unavoidable trend that more and more trade issues were emerging that urgently needed Members to establish new disciplines for them. It was highly important to update WTO rules and to make the WTO a living organization and not be left behind by the world.

“10.33. Through Joint Statement Initiatives, Members had developed a creative way to address the trend so that the WTO’s legislative function could be improved for it to maintain its relevancy given new developments in the world – with Members still maintaining the flexibility not to opt in. Chinese Taipei called on Members to jointly think about how plurilateral agreements could be integrated into the multilateral trading system while considering Members’ needs for their respective development stages and maintaining the existing rights and obligations of non-participating Members.”

Colombia (page 70 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.34. The representative of Colombia believed that that was an important discussion for the future of the organization as those initiatives covered the interests of many Members to move forward on crucial issues in global trade relations. Colombia appreciated the interest the Director-General had expressed on JSIs. That was a necessary step for the strengthening of the WTO. Colombia was happy to see how the path that had begun with previous processes such as the ITA was currently joined by many Members who were involved in the JSIs – an important space to resolve pending priorities.

“10.35. Such perspective had led Colombia to actively and formally participate in the JSIs on ecommerce, investment facilitation for development, services domestic regulation, MSMEs and trade and gender. Colombia also expressed its interest in other nascent initiatives which would likewise have an important impact on the WTO’s future as a driver of development for Members. With regard to the document being reviewed that day, Colombia did not share the legal analysis that the paper had set out but remained ready to continue that discussion in the appropriate forum. Colombia reiterated its commitment to the JSIs and its support for any work that could be done in that area.”

Mexico (page 70 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.36. The representative of Mexico said that JSIs provided an excellent opportunity to furnish the WTO with tools that would allow it to face the current challenges in global trade. Members were in a situation where some of them believed that they were still not in a position to fully integrate themselves into the work under way. The JSI participants had never foreclosed the possibility for more Members to join those initiatives when they deemed it appropriate to do so nor did those initiatives diminish the rights and obligations of non-participating Members. Rather, the JSIs offered a possibility to move forward and help the WTO become more relevant by promoting trade as a vehicle for development. Mexico had been a strong proponent of the JSIs as the work had taken place openly, inclusively and transparently with voluntary participation at its core.”

Russian Federation (page 71 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.37. The representative of the Russian Federation found the paper by India and South Africa upsetting. There was no doubt that Members should respect the right of any of them to express its attitude towards current developments within the multilateral legal system and to point out issues which it could see as contradictory to the system’s rules. The paper was however not about that but
dealt with the issue of whether the WTO should move forward and regain its relevancy amid the changing global economic environment or should it be further bogged down by disagreements among Members and lack of consensus eventually turning into an archaic and useless institution.

“10.38. The multilateral outcomes at MC11 had clearly been quite poor. The decision to promote and accelerate fisheries subsidies negotiations – the only multilateral and negotiation-related result achieved in Buenos Aires – was evidently not enough to chart a way forward for the WTO. The JSIs in which Russia was proud to participate in had been considered globally as a signal of Members’ ability and readiness to explore possible formats to move ahead. The progress achieved in all JSIs since then demonstrated the effectiveness of that approach. For example, the JSI on Services Domestic Regulation was an attempt to deliver on a long standing commitment of all Members to develop the respective disciplines as set out in GATS Article VI.4.

“10.39. As for the incorporation of new plurilateral initiatives into the WTO Agreements, Russia agreed with suggestion of India and South Africa that it should be done in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Marrakesh Agreement. However, the final goal of the JSIs was not to create a set of isolated rules among like-minded Members but rather to update the multilateral legal
system as a whole. That was why the JSIs remained open to all Members at any stage.

“10.40. The most disappointing fact about the submission was that while attacking JSIs, it did not provide any way forward essentially keeping the WTO to languish in the current limbo. No Member had taken the position to leave behind the core WTO mandated issues like agriculture or ‘horizontal’ S&DT. However, if the needs of the businesses and the people worldwide including in developing countries required Members to agree on adequate and up-to-date rules on other important issues, they had no right to keep those requests as hostages of their inability to reach progress on all fronts.”

Japan (page 71 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.41. The representative of Japan appreciated the Joint Statement Initiatives as an essential framework to allow the WTO to address in a flexible and realistic manner the changing global economic needs of the 21st century. The JSIs responded to calls from a broad range of stakeholders by discussing key economic issues and would contribute to updating the WTO rulebook and to
ensuring the relevance of the WTO in today’s world. Without the JSIs, the WTO risked becoming less relevant and even losing its raison d’être as a cornerstone of the multilateral trading system. The JSI meetings were organized in an open, transparent and inclusive manner.

“10.42. While taking into account the convenience of respective Members including the size of their delegations in organizing the process, the fact that many of them were participating in the JSIs and actively engaging in negotiations in a creative and innovative way clearly showed the JSI’s importance. A number of achievements made in the GATT and the WTO had initially been taken up
or discussed in plurilateral initiatives which were later merged in the system. Japan believed that the JSIs were consistent with the WTO and had high hopes that they would be a key part of the MC12 outcomes. Japan would continue to work with other Members to deliver substantial outcomes in the JSIs as a positive achievement of the WTO.”

Republic of Korea (page 71 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.43. The representative of the Republic of Korea, as a staunch supporter of the multilateral trading system, was disappointed to see the WTO in limbo in particular its failure to function as a forum for multilateral trade negotiations in response to the diverse needs and interests of Members. Upon such impasse and trade liberalization shifting weight to regional agreements outside the WTO, plurilateral negotiations could be a meaningful stepping-stone for multilateral agreement. It also served as a test pad for pioneering new trade rules as demonstrated by the GPA and the ITA. The JSIs which were held parallel with multilateral negotiations were essential to maintain the WTO’s relevance in the changing trade environment. Those negotiations were responsive to the demands of diverse stakeholders which would help rebuild trust in the multilateral trading system. Korea
therefore expressed its concern on the communication submitted by India and South Africa which raised questions on the concerted endeavours for revitalizing the WTO’s negotiating function.”

United States (pages 71-72 of WT/GC/M/190)

“10.44. The representative of the United States believed that plurilateral negotiations at the WTO could be a useful means to advance issues of interest to Members and to keep the WTO relevant. It did not view plurilateral negotiations and outcomes as undermining multilateral ones. In fact, plurilateral initiatives could foster new ideas and approaches and build momentum toward
multilateral outcomes. The various rigid positions expressed in the paper would seem to foreclose Members’ ability to pursue creative and flexible approaches at the WTO to the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Possible JSI outcomes at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference

The WTO is hoping that the 12th Ministerial Conference will finally deliver a fisheries subsidies agreement after 20 years of negotiations. It would be a multilateral agreement and only the second such agreement (the other being Trade Facilitation) concluded since the creation of the WTO in 1995. There are hopes for collective action on trade and health and some other issues. But many of the likely deliverables will involve Joint Statement Initiatives. Hence the position of India and South Africa may muddy the outlook for whether such initiatives when concluded will be incorporated into the WTO acquis.

Press accounts of a recent Chatham House event noted the view of the European Union that the WTO needs to be able to bring these initiatives into the WTO. See Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Weyand: WTO reform should include easier’ path for plurilateral deals, November 15, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/daily-news/weyand-wto-reform-should-include-easier-path-plurilateral-deals (“World Trade Organization members need an ‘easier’ way to integrate plurilateral agreements into the organization’s rulebook, European Commission Director-General for Trade Sabine Weyand said on Friday, calling for the idea to be a part of broader WTO reform discussions.”). The EU, like most other WTO Members, has been an active participant in various JSIs.

A former Deputy Director-General of the WTO, Alan Wolff, presented views in Singapore earlier this week on the subject of the role of plurilaterals in the WTO. See Peterson Institute for International Economics, Alan Wm. Wolff, Plurilateral Agreements and the Future of the WTO, November 16, 2021, Remarks delivered at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, https://www.piie.com/commentary/speeches-papers/plurilateral-agreements-and-future-wto. His speech is worth reading in its entirety. A few excerpts are provided below and highlight the critical importance of plurilaterals going forward. Whether plurilaterals are within the WTO or outside will basically determine whether the WTO can maintain relevance in the future.

“Plurilateral agreements have become and will remain the primary path forward for improving the conditions for international trade.

“Insofar as the future health of the multilateral trading system is concerned, there are three alternatives:

“(1) coalitions of the like-minded will be able to conclude open plurilateral agreements within the WTO,

“(2) forward-leaning agreements are negotiated outside the WTO but become templates for the multilateral rules, or

“(3) the WTO becomes increasingly irrelevant to new global challenges and there is a consequent fragmentation of the world trading system.”

After reviewing the JSIs and other initiatives on climate change, trade and health and other matters, Amb. Wolff notes that

“Global problems need global solutions.

“The only practical way forward for the WTO is through open plurilateral agreements. Otherwise, Members who are looking for solutions will view the WTO as being increasingly irrelevant. The WTO to thrive needs to become more flexible.

“Notionally, various subjects can be negotiated on their own, in disparate venues, each unrelated to the other, without full transparency, without interested countries having a say. That is a recipe for global incoherence. It is the opposite of what is needed.

“Where trade is a vitally important aspect of meeting a global challenge – such as a pandemic or climate change, there is no clear alternative venue for addressing fully countries’ needs. The WTO must be pressed into service.

“It is time for the WTO’s Members to take the next step and embrace the open plurilateral agreements being negotiated now and those that are going to be launched to meet their needs for the 21st century.”

The 12th Ministerial Conference is the opportunity for WTO Members to embrace the future or commit the WTO to reduced relevancy. By early December, we should understand the likely direction of the WTO.

Biden Administration should join the Joint Statement Initiatives that it is not presently party to

President Biden has made it clear that his Administration will work within multilateral organizations to the extent possible to move the U.S. agenda forward. During the Trump Administration, the U.S. participated actively in the World Trade Organization but was active in only one of the Joint Statement Initiatives that were initiated at the end of the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference in late 2017.

Thus, the United States is an active participant in the ongoing negotiations following the Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce (WT/MIN(17)/60, 13 December 2017), but is not a party to the other Joint Statement Initiatives. See Joint Ministerial Statement on Services Domestic Regulation (WT/MIN(17)/61, 13 December 2017); Joint Ministerial Statement on Investment Facilitation for Development (WT/MIN(17)/59, 13 December 2017); Joint Ministerial Statement, Declaration on the Establishment of a WTO Informal Work Programme for MSMEs (WT/MIN(17)/58, 13 December 2017); Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment on the Occasion of the WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December 2017.

While India and South Africa have challenged the legitimacy of the Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs), a great deal of the energy in the WTO in the last several years has been put into the JSIs. See, e.g., February 20, 2021, Will India and South Africa (and others) prevent future relevance of the WTO?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/20/will-india-and-south-africa-and-others-prevent-future-relevance-of-the-wto/; WTO, Coordinators of joint initiatives cite substantial progress in discussions, 18 December 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/jsec_18dec20_e.htm. The WTO press release is copied below.

“The coordinators of the joint initiatives on e-commerce, investment facilitation, services domestic regulation and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) said on 18 December that substantial progress has been achieved in their respective discussions and that they are on track to deliver concrete results or additional progress at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) scheduled for next year.

“In their communication, the coordinators noted that they have delivered summary statements to WTO members outlining how far the four initiatives have advanced since they were launched three years ago, where they stand today, and what their next steps in the discussions will be.

“’What these statements clearly show is the substantial progress [of the initiatives] in a short period of time, that they are on track to delivering concrete results or progress at MC12, and that they are contributing to building a more responsive, relevant and modern WTO — which will be critical to restoring global trade and economic growth in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.’

“’These initiatives have grown into an increasingly important part of the agenda of the WTO, with an expanding number of participants from both the developed and developing worlds that account for a significant part of the WTO’s membership, and based on the principles of openness, transparency and inclusiveness,’ the coordinators added.

“The new joint initiatives were launched at the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December 2017 with the aim of commencing negotiations or discussions on issues of increasing relevance to the world trading system.

“The joint initiative coordinators are Ambassador José Luis Cancela Gómez (Uruguay) for the Informal Working Group on MSMEs; Ambassadors George Mina (Australia), Yamazaki Kazuyuki (Japan) and Tan Hung Seng (Singapore) for the Joint Statement Initiative on E-Commerce; Deputy Permanent Representative Jaime Coghi Arias (Costa Rica) for the Joint Statement Initiative on Services Domestic Regulation; and Ambassador-designate Mathias Francke (Chile) for the Structured Discussions on Investment Facilitation for Development.

“The coordinators noted that the consolidated negotiating text on e-commerce will provide a foundation for intensified negotiations in 2021. They highlighted that the negotiations on services domestic regulation are at a ‘mature stage’, with a genuine potential for an outcome by MC12.

“The coordinators also said that substantive provisions of an investment facilitation agreement are being negotiated by the participating members in this initiative. In addition, they noted the recent announcement by the Informal Working Group on MSMEs of a package of declarations and recommendations to help small business trade internationally.

“The coordinators underscored that the shared and ultimate goal of these initiatives is to strengthen and reinforce the multilateral trading system, that they are open to all WTO members, and that they seek the participation of as many members as possible.

“The coordinators stated: ‘The initiatives on e-commerce, investment facilitation, services domestic regulation, and MSMEs clearly demonstrate that the WTO can respond to new economic and technological challenges in a flexible, pragmatic, and timely way. These initiatives — and their innovative approach to cooperation and negotiation — can provide a valuable illustration of WTO reform in action.’”

While the Joint Declaration Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment on the Occasion of the WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December 2017 is not treated as a JSI, it does have many Members supporting the Declaration and engaging in the informal work programme.

Some of the other countries participating in all of the JSIs and Joint Declaration

While the number of WTO Members participating in the JSIs and supporting the Joint Declaration vary, the following is a partial list of Members who are signatories to all of the JSIs and the Joint Declaration. Other than the Electronic Commerce initiative, the U.S. is presently not a signatory or participant in any of the other JSIs or Joint Declaration.

Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, European Union, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Russian Federation, Switzerland are participants in all of the JSIs and supportive of the Joint Declaration. Dozens of other Members are participating in some or many of the JSI’s that the U.S. is not presently supporting or active in.

Conclusion

While the United States has a large agenda of issues it wishes to address at the WTO (including trade and the environment, WTO reform, industrial subsidies), it makes no sense that the United States would not actively participate in work programs where most of the major economies are active and where new rules will be relevant to areas of significance for the United States as well as for trading partners. While the work program on women and trade is in an informal working group, President Biden has made empowerment of women an important priority for his Administration as a range of actions during International Women’s Day made clear. See, e.g., March 8, 2011, March 8, 2021, International Women’s Day — statements of UN Women Executive Director,  heads of WTO, UNCTAD and International Trade Centre, and U.S. Executive Orders and Statement by President Biden, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/08/march-8-2021-international-womens-day-statements-of-un-women-executive-director-heads-of-wto-unctad-and-international-trade-centre-and-u-s-executive-orders-and-statement-by-president-biden/. Similarly, MSMEs are an important part of the U.S. economy and a major driver of economic growth. The U.S. has a very strong services sector which has an interest in domestic regulatory issues both in the U.S. and as addressed overseas. Finally, the U.S. is both a major investor in foreign countries and a recipient of large amounts of foreign investment and has a significant interest in helping the global community address issues involved in investment in developing and least developed countries on a more predictable basis.

Hopefully, the Biden Administration when its USTR nominee is confirmed in the coming days, will opt to engage in all of the JSIs. It is time.